Monday, May 07, 2007

Restaurant Reviewing in Baltimore

Elizabeth Large, primary restaurant reviewer for the Baltimore Sun, has posed a question on her blog regarding the use of stars as a rating system. Currently, the Sun's classifications are as follows: one star is "poor," two is "fair or uneven," three is "good" and four is "excellent." This odd system has long bothered me. Why awards stars to restaurants judged to be poor or fair? What's the logic in that? It's like saying, "your food sucks, but I'll give you points for having the audacity to charge money for it." Commenting on her post, I proposed a new ratings system, much like that used by the New York Times and Washington Post (real newspapers): 1 star = good, 2 stars = very good, 3 stars = excellent, 4 stars = exemplary or extraordinary.

By the Sun's current system, restaurants like Zen West and noisy chain P.F. Chang's get three stars, while James Beard Award nominee Cindy Wolf's Charleston gets four. What? You don't think they're that close? Me neither. There are several possible rankings between "good" and "excellent." The Sun tries to get around these shades of gray by awarding half stars. Ixia earned 3.5 stars. While this may seem equitable when comparing it to Charleston (but frankly, I prefer Ixia), is it really only half a star better than Koco's Pub and Grill? I'm not trying to be a snob here by picking on a bar that serves food. Stars are not only about rating the flavor of food, they also represent the quality of food, quality of service, and the atmosphere as well. If Koco's fits the three star bill in all of those categories, or maybe the atmosphere is a 2 and the food flavor is a 4 while service and food quality are solid threes, then by all means, the overall rating should be three. But P.F. Chang's? Just because the place is fancier-looking than KFC doesn't mean the food is of any higher quality, nor does it necessarily taste better.

Karen Nitkin, the Sun's other restaurant reviewer (huge eyeroll) wants to make the star system far more complicated than it needs to be.
If I had my way, I’d change the stars to: deliciousness of food, inventiveness of food, fanciness of setting, and attention to customers. For example, Gourmet Again was delicious, but very casual. So if it got three stars for deliciousness, one for inventiveness, one for fanciness and two for attention to customers, readers might get a clearer picture of what to expect. Dogwood, for example, might get more stars for inventiveness than deliciousness. The star system now is set up as a system of insult vs. compliment. Maybe there’s a way to make it more descriptive.

Then why the hell not just SAY all of that in the review?? WTF is "inventiveness" anyway? Would molecular gastronomy classify as such? Or would putting a slice of avocado on a BLT be inventive for Nitkin? And if a restaurant is bad, saying so is not an insult - it is the truth. Saying "the steak tasted delicious, but I was dismayed at the amount of gristle" isn't an insult, it's a criticism. That's why the job title is "restaurant critic." It is not a requirement of a critic to overlook flaws in order to be "nice." I've read reviews in which the critic has issues with at least two dishes and the service and still gives the restaurant three stars. Why bother even writing about it if the review won't be completely honest? Who benefits?

In addition to the awkward rating system, Sun critics don't have the opportunity to visit a restaurant multiple times in order to properly evaluate the overall dining experience. If the evening they choose to review a new restaurant happens to be the one night in 100 that things go awry in the kitchen (or, conversely, the 1 in 100 that things go right), a one-shot review could be rather unfair to both restaurant and potential diner. If, on the other hand, a critic can visit the same place 3 - 5 times over the course of a few weeks, a more accurate gauge of the restaurant's overall merits can be made.

No system is perfect, however, particularly in a podunk town such as Baltimore. But I believe improvements can and should be made in order to better represent the quality of dining experiences in the region.